Edward O. Wilson, the founding prophet of sociobiology, has long been a controversial figure, starting with demonizing as a racist for his 1970’s claim that there is an evolutionary basis to human behaviour.
A recent article in the Boston Globe (April 17, 2011) has brought Wilson’s latest scientific spat into the general spotlight. This time, he’s trying to unconvert the converted. Of such things are science wars made.
Morality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life. … So dissecting moral institutions is no small matter.
— Steven Pinker
Part I promised an emphasis on practical ethics, that is, the application of our metaethical understanding to the very human issues of thriving and survival. Part II looks at morality from that perspective: Can we alter our inborn “moral emotions”? Can we “rein them in” when doing so would be more adaptive?
The universal need to achieve social stability guarantees
that some system of moral rules will be devised.
– Jesse Prinz
At the end of our series on moral psychology, it’s time to bring together the research and ideas of the writers we’ve featured, and of some others who’ve been in the background, and to try to compose the best available summary of what we know about human morality.
As we saw last time, Michael Ruse claims that human morality is a product of natural selection, a successful adaptation, connected to our being social animals.
If our ethical sense is not objective, is it the result of evolution alone, as some strongly-nativist neuropsychologists think, or is it the result of cultural learning alone, as relativists believe? Some of us think that it is a Gordian knot-like mixture of both — a culture-specific expression of evolved, universal mental states — but there are writers who emphasize one position to the exclusion of the other.
Raymond Tallis, British humanist and writer, is one of a small number of non-believers who give aid and comfort to a group with whom they are in essential disagreement.
Tallis’s target is “neurotheologists,” who threaten to reduce consciousness to merely the operations of universal and mostly unconscious physical processes, and to explain these processes in evolutionary terms.
Tallis is a prominent atheist, but his argument — his rant, to be accurate — against evolutionary neuropsychology puts him squarely in the “there’s more to the mind than the brain” camp, which is where the theists operate comfortably.
Russell Jacoby has always been a pot-stirrer, and he’s at it again. This time, Jacoby has taken on what he considers the convoluted composition and inane scholarship of a new book on utopias, which happens to be one of his own favourite topics.
Jacoby, a UCLA Professor of History, has long criticized his academic and Marxist political colleagues on two fronts — their trepid politics and their insipid scholarship.
Last time, I wrote sympathetically about the role that the reader plays in the discovery of meaning in poetry, indeed, in all literature.
However, preparing for that article I read the introduction to From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (2005), by Jennifer Ashton, which approvingly describes a much more extreme postmodernism which seeks entirely to remove the writer’s authorship from the process, thereby turning the poem from an expressive form into exposition on abstract poetics and language theory.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist best known for his work on the categorical sources of human morality, has found a new source of discrimination — in his own profession.
The New York Times reports that Haidt argued, in a speech to the recently-concluded annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, that there is an unacceptably liberal skew among his colleagues.
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why do we exist?
Why this particular set of laws and not some other?
[Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design]
In this latest article in our informal series on the nature of reality — certainly a central issue for anyone who claims to be a realist — we’ll take one last look at The Grand Design. This time, the focus will be the metaphysics of Hawking’s physics: not the usual science question “What do we know?” but the philosophical question “What can we know?” about the world in which we live.
Cognitive science has two main branches, one primarily physiological and one primarily psychological. The interests, methods, and outcomes of the approaches are so different that it may be a mistake to consider them together. But many people do, with predictable confusion and miscomprehension.